Everyone has their own vision of who Superman should be. For some, it may be Christopher Reeve’s bumbling, oafish Clark Kent and his strong, resilient Last Son of Krypton. For others, it could easily be the Dan Jurgens Superman who valiantly and selflessly fought Doomsday to the death. For other fans, Superman may be embodied by his depiction in Kingdom Come, the Fleischer Brothers shorts, or the 1986 John Byrne revamp. Some may even simply think of the iconic image appearing for the first on the cover of Action Comics #1: the image of a man, decked in red and blue, lifting a car over his head like a latter-day Atlas.
To say that Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman feels like the culmination of the character’s history is not to slight those who are working or will eventually work on the world’s first superhero. If anything, it should show what can be done with the character, and serve as maybe the start of a second chapter in his history. Calling the series a heartfelt, masterful work is like saying Citizen Kane is “a good movie” and that Bob Dylan is “a clever poet”. In other words, it is a massive understatement, the kind usually reserved for sarcastic comments.
Morrison has carefully crafted the depiction of each important character in the Superman mythos, amalgamating various Lex Luthors, Jimmy Olsens and Lois Lanes into the definitive version of each icon. References are made to stories, characters and places from a number of disparate sources, including Curt Swan, Alan Moore, Smallville and, yes, Morrison himself. Moreover, a number of new concepts are introduced—among them a tyrannical dinosaur overlord and a wacky, Willy Wonka-esque scientist named Leo Quintum—that fit right into the world and tone of this essential Superman.
Quitely’s art serves to enhance the world Morrison has both created and revitalized, making Superman’s universe appear as the ultimate dreamworld of romance, heroism, action, adventure, sacrifice and super-science. It is the place we all dreamt of inhabiting when reading Superman stories in our youth, and thanks to the inspiration from Morrison’s scripts, Quitely is able to bring us there. We exist alongside Superman, punching out Bizarro and engaging Luthor in battle, romancing Lois and saving the Daily Planet from destruction yet again.
The tale that Morrison himself has crafted goes beyond being “life-affirming”. It is almost life-defining. As Shakespeare would say, it is “such stuff as dreams are made on”, and as such serves as the type of mythology that the very foundations of both the universe and storytelling are built upon. This becomes particularly potent in an early chapter, when Superman is told of his 12 greatest deeds by a visitor from the far future who speaks in veneration of his actions. He could easily be talking about the feats of Zeus, Moses, Christ, Buddha, Hanuman, Allah, Odysseus or Prometheus… but the fact that the mythological hero being discussed is Superman is what makes it work and, moreover, shows exactly why Superman belongs in that archetypal pantheon of the great hero or savior. He is the greatest ideals of humanity made flesh in a fictional world where he is able to affect change in reality in a very tactile way.
Morrison’s story, the altogether touching tale of the last days of the Man of Steel and his final victory over Lex Luthor, serves as the greatest defense as to why people of all ages, races and genders walk around sporting Superman memorabilia, tattoos and action figures. This story is somehow able to defy the odds and transcend all other Superman stories ever told, becoming the definitive take on the character almost without trying.
And if none of that gets you? Well, this is the one comic book where you will ever find Jimmy Olsen using bizarre Silver Age-esque scientific methods to transform into a Doomsday-like creature, a Bizarro version of Bizarro named, well, Zibarro, the greatest version of the death of Jonathan Kent ever published, and a story wherein Superman creates the real world.
There are three schools of thought on superhero storytelling: what superhero comic books were, what they are, and what they could—and maybe should—be. All Star Superman seems to transcend the first two and somehow becomes an ultimatum, the final gauntlet toss, begging those in its presence to raise the bar for superhero stories even further. After All Star Superman, it’ll be surprising to see anyone attempting to meet that challenge anytime soon.